Friday, March 30, 2018

Hot Girls Wanted


When Hegel observed that the past repeats itself, Karl Marx added the famous caveat “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. To subject oneself to the hour twenty minutes of Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus’s documentary ‘Hot Girls Wanted’, produced by singer and actress Rashida Jones, is to witness tragedy and farce awkwardly intertwined, both of them trying to pretend they’re enjoying it, while keeping one eye locked on their Instagram feeds and desperately hoping for another dozen likes.

Sticking with the Karl Marx theme for another paragraph, he and Friedrich Engels’ revolutionary political manifesto started with the words “a spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism”. Likewise, a spectre is haunting ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ – several spectres, in fact. Actually a whole fucking graveyard full of them. Shiver at the Ghost of Abject Narcissistic Stupidity! Gasp at the Ghost of Obsessive Social Media Inanity! Try not to piss your pants at the Ghost of Monumental Self-Delusion! (That’s piss your pants laughing, by the way, not piss your pants because it’s scary.)

There is, however, one spectre missing from the soul-crushingly interminable 80 minutes of this flick – and that’s the very spectre Bauer, Gradus, Jones and writer Brittany Huckaby went ghosthunting for in the first place.

The project started out as an investigation into male campus attitudes towards, and consumption of, online pornography (because God bless the internet that the youth of today no longer have to scrutinise a video store carpet while scarlet patches spread across their cheeks as they hand over to the matronly clerk an empty VHS case with a cover image of Nina Hartley about to steer some girl-next-door type down the rue de Sapphos), only to realise that the aforementioned girl-next-door types accounted for the majority of these thick-necked jocks’ viewing preferences: a hand-shandy subgenre known as “amateur porn”.

Thus it was that Bauer and Gradus and Jones and Huckaby, old Uncle Tom Netflix and all, went haring off in pursuit of these (mostly) teenage adult entertainment ingénues. The resulting documentary merited (that’s “merited” as in “was inexplicably on the receiving end of”) some festival buzz, even though early audiences felt that it lacked focus. Viewers and filmmakers batted their opinions around on Twitter while the auteur theory crawled into a hole and died. Re-edits occurred.

I’ve not had the opportunity to view the original cut, so I can’t say how it differs from the version now floating around near the scuzzy plughole of Netflix, but I can only assume that if the cut I watched was the one with all the focus and clarity, its erstwhile incarnation must have been headfuck incoherent on the level of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky going on a two-week bender during which they summoned the ghosts of Aleister Crowley and Jim Morrison via a ouija board whose letters were in Croatian and whose numbers roughly correlated with the Mayan calendar.

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ is a clusterfuck on pretty much every level, but the essence of its clusterfuckery is Bauer and Gradus’ inability to find a tone, a context – hell, even a fucking point – to their film. At base level, you could précis it as the failure to bridge its Presbyterian disapproval at the depravity its subjects throw themselves into with its you-go-girl insistence on defending to the death (or at least a flesh wound) their right to do it in the name of empowerment, feminism, Belle Knox or the flying spaghetti monster.

Belle Knox, the so-called “Duke University porn star” (a weird conflation of alma mater and something-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-alma-mater that must make me the Bluecoat Sixth Form College sarcastic motherfucker), haunts the periphery of this film; and, given her soundbite-friendly eloquence and its-my-story-and-I’m-sticking-to-it pseudo-feminist narrative, you get the impression that she’s the person Bauer and Gradus would rather be making a film about. Sadly, though, they have to satisfy themselves with a short clip from Knox’s toe-curling interview with professional British skeaze-meister Piers Morgan and an even shorter clip (mercifully) from one of her “facial abuse” videos.

Bauer and Gradus also have to make do, in terms of interview subjects, with Tressa (porn name: Stella May*), Rachel (porn name: Ava Taylor), Michelle (porn name: Brooklyn Daniels**), Karly (porn name: Lucy Tyler) and Jade (Ava Kelly). Their ages range from 18 to 25, though Jade at 25 is edging out of the girl-next-door market and forced to do more “specialist” videos. Bauer and Gradus capture her response at being asked to dress appropriate for a “ghetto” shoot. She cannot believe, she avers, that “there are guys who go to a pawn shop and they’re like ‘I wanna fuck that girl’,” and having delivered this value judgement against some poor shmuck reduced by circumstances to hocking his worldly goods for far less than they’re worth, she toddles off to the same kind of degrading experience Knox put herself through – she’s verbally abused, spat on, slapped around and much much worse – all for the same devalued handful of greenbacks.

The startling coda to this scene is her rationalisation that essentially being raped on camera means that guys who get their jollies from this kind of thing will sate themselves watching it happen to her rather than “doing it to a real girl”. Jade’s dissociation of herself from any recognisable set of values is the film’s emotional nadir and flies in the face of the my-choice-my-empowerment spin Bauer and Gradus desperately try to hammer home elsewhere. It does, however, provide an interesting point of contrast to Karly, who reads intellectually stimulating books on her days off and has created “Lucy Tyler” not as a pseudonym but an alter-ego: she subtly changes her appearance and behaves differently in order to become Lucy, and shrugs off the character after the shoot is over. Bauer and Gradus were handed a pint-sized nucleus of potential in Karly, and a version of ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ that focused on her methodology for surviving the industry and retaining her self-identity could have been fascinating, particularly in counterpoint to Jade’s horrifying naivety.

But no: the filmmakers went with Tressa and Rachel as their primary focus. Granted, there were avenues that could have been explored with both of them. Rachel is introduced during her first few days in the business, blinged up and not exactly rocking a beanie hat, chuffing on a cigarillo and attempting to freestyle. This is the affront to linguistics that she comes up with:

Yeah, you’re a porn star
And I’m a fucking shooting star, bitch
And now we’re going to LA
And we’re gonna sip Bombay
Yeah, and I’m smokin’ hella blunt
Yeah, and I got hella cunt, yeah

(She’s white, by the way.) Now contrast this muppet babies version of hardcore with her interview following her first shoot: “Ugh, I got macked on by some creeper,” a statement delivered with all the wide-eyed incredulity of someone who honest-to-God thought that a life in adult features would require little more than some naked orgiastic motion-capture writhing and all the nasty, squelchy, gooey stuff would be added in later by CGI. Bauer and Gradus try this trick more than once, banging the drum re: the horrible reality of pornographic features, then undercutting themselves by citing research – specifically carried out for the film – that identifies extreme and violent porn (such as the “facial abuse” subgenre Belle Knox and Jade were victims of) as being prominently advertised on porn sites.

Ultimately, none of the interview subjects in ‘Hot Girls Wanted’ present as being in the dark about what awaits them (although they bullshit each other to an almost cruel degree as to how easy the lifestyle is: a frequently peddled myth is that “the guys treat you like princesses”), which doesn’t leave Bauer and Gradus with a lot of room to pattern a victim narrative (they do their best, though). Whenever the issues of complicity or responsibility rear their heads, the filmmakers hastily swerve in the direction of why-do-these-poor-girls-do-this, and in needing to grasp onto this aspect of the story they inadvertently make Tressa the main focus of the documentary.

So what does Tressa need to get away from so desperately? Um, a comfortable suburban home, a mother who’s proud of her academic and cheerleading achievements and a father who enjoys spending time with her, it would seem. Sure, her ma’s a bit of a couch potato, and her dad likes firing off shotguns, but neither of them come across as the kind of controlling, suffocating or domineering types that one’s only option is a flight to Miami and so much sex with hatchet-faced tattooed douchebags that one develops a vaginal cyst.

The clue to Tressa’s psychological make-up has more to do with an obsession with image. I was about to say self-image, but that makes it seem too profound. Let’s just use the word “selfie” instead. Tressa comes across as an entity virtually inseperable from her cellphone or laptop. Every phone call she makes is a face-time pout opportunity. She goes on a date to the zoo with her limp dick loser boyfriend (“you’re not a prostitute to me” he says at one point, dejection spray-painted across his hangdog face) and tunes out of his conversation, so focused is she on filming herself. And again, an avenue presents itself to Bauer and Gradus – the fledgling porn star as a product of the social media age – but they lack either the interest or the ability to pursue it.

If Jade’s humiliation at the “facial abuse” shoot is the tragedy part of ‘Hot Girls Wanted’, Tressa’s return to the parental abode – limp dick boyfriend in tow – is the farce. In a volte-face that plays out like the worst Hollywood melodrama, the combination of her parents’ disappointment and her boyfriend’s general deficiency of manliness lead her to a disavowal of her short-lived porn star past. “I only made twenty-five thousand dollars in four months,” she opines, “and when I came home I had two thousand left in the bank.” That she applies “only” to the twenty-five thousand not the two says something I could probably write another few paragraphs about, but the hour is late, the review already overlong, and further speculation on Tressa and co. frankly not worth the effort.

‘Hot Girls Wanted’ is a documentary whose title all but instructs you to ready your palm for some onanistic activity, only to compel you to smack it repeatedly against your forehead instead.



*Perhaps the only example of the porn name being classier than the actual name.

**Decided on after she’s encouraged to “think of a place you like”, which is like a male London porn star alighting on the pseudonym Brixton Hardd.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: wrap-up

When StudioCanal acquired Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ – even though they were already distributing higher-budgeted rival film ‘The Mercy’ – there was speculation that they were protecting their interests as regards the latter and that Rumley’s film would effectively be quashed. StudioCanal nonetheless announced that ‘Crowhurst would open “four to six weeks” after ‘The Mercy’.

Well, those four to six weeks have disappeared over the horizon and although ‘Crowhurst’ has received a couple of (complimentary) reviews in the broadsheets, there’s been neither sight nor sound of it at any cinema anywhere near your humble blogger. So my objective of wrapping up Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind with an in-depth review of Rumley’s take on the enigmatic story of Donald Crowhurst is basically bollocksed.

Nor did I manage to track down a copy of Christian de Chalonge’s ‘Les quarantièmes rugissants’ (‘The Roaring Forties’) or the BBC documentary ‘Donald Crowhurst: Sponsored for Heroism’. I found Nikita Orlov’s ‘Gonka Veka’ (‘The Race of the Century’) online, but in a print that wasn’t subtitled, and while it was a solidly made piece of work that seemed to focus on the sponsorship/business aspect of the story to make an anti-capitalist point, I wasn’t confident in attempting a review.

Whilst kicking my heels waiting for ‘Crowhurst’ to open – and delaying a number of other reviews in the process – I read Peter Nichols’ ‘A Voyage for Madmen’, which tells the story of all of the Golden Globe participants and delivers its meticulously researched narrative with all the verve and immediacy of a thriller; and Donald Finkel’s book-length narrative poem ‘The Wake of the Electron’, in which Finkel imaginatively sympathises with Crowhurst, taking prompts from his final log book and from Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ (Crowhurst’s less-than-light-reading during the voyage) and wrestles them into poetry.

I have yet to source copies of Tomalin and Hall’s ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ and Chris Eakin’s ‘A Race Too Far’ (acclaimed by ‘The Mercy’ star Colin Firth), but I can highly recommend Nichols and Finkel: their approaches are vastly different but their contributions to the Crowhurst canon are invaluable.

Friday, March 09, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: The Mercy


So: over a month after I saw ‘The Mercy’ at a vastly under-attended screening at Nottingham’s Cineworld multiplex – during which I have watched several other Crowhurst features, ploughed through two-thirds of Peter Nichols’s book ‘A Voyage for Madmen’, added Tomalin and Hall’s ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ and Bernard Moitessier’s ‘The Long Way’ to my “must read” list, and cursed StudioCanal for not getting Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ into theatres four to six weeks after ‘The Mercy’ as they promised – I find myself sitting down to write about ‘The Mercy’ and feeling like I’m about to be a bit of a heel.

I had sod all knowledge of Donald Crowhurst, Bernard Moitessier and the 1968 Golden Globe race before I saw ‘The Mercy’. I went to see it because of its stars – Colin Firth and the always watchable Rachel Weisz – and because it looked like something reasonably interesting amidst an otherwise lacklustre choice of cinema-going options. What ‘The Mercy’ did was to sink a hook in my imagination and pull the line attached to it taut as a piano wire. It made me want to know more. Not just about Crowhurst but the other contestants. Once payday has rolled around again and I can order a copy of Moitessier’s account and the Tomalin/Hall book, my next acquisitions will be Donald Finkel’s book-length poem ‘The Wake of the Electron’ and Robin Knox-Johnston’s memoir ‘A World of My Own’.

This from someone who never had any real interest in ocean voyages or yachtsmanship. And it’s thanks to ‘The Mercy’ that I owe this explosion of new-found fascination.

And yet – I was aware of this to a certain degree as I watched the film, and it’s been thrown into sharper relief by my viewing, reading and researches since – ‘The Mercy’ isn’t that great a movie. It’s decent, don’t get me wrong – nicely shot, good production values, a commendably taut hour forty minute running time, and Firth’s most committed performance in ages – but it falls short of greatness.

It falls short because, in some places, it elides fascinating details of Crowhurst and the Teignmouth Electron’s voyage that would have added to the drama; and in others it sanitises them. Example of the former: ‘The Mercy’ insinuates that the Teignmouth Electron was delivered to Crowhurst at the very eleventh hour, allowing him to set out on the very day of the deadline – 31 October 1968 – when in fact the vessel was launched in late September with the intention that Crowhurst would sail it from Brundall to Teignmouth (the Electron had been named after the harbour town as part of Rodney Hallworth’s publicity drive), a voyage that should have been a three day hop for any competent sailor but took Crowhurst a fortnight. Much, too, is made in the film of Crowhurst’s self-designed safety devices, particularly the “buoyancy bag”, and a genuinely vertiginous scene has a petrified Crowhurst (Firth) climbing a wobbling mast in order to effect a repair only to fail in his endeavours. In actuality, none of the safety features had been completed and/or installed before the Electron set sail, and it strikes me that for the film to have reflected this would have ramped up the tension from the get-go.

Examples of director James Marsh and writer Scott Z. Burns’s sanitisation are more prolific and more troubling. One needs only to consult two or three accounts of the Crowhurst story to identify Stanley Best and Rodney Hallworth as the puppet-masters who manoeuvred Crowhurst into his damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t dilemma. Yet Marsh and Burns almost seem to take pains to paint Best as a kindly old cove (he’s played by Ken Stott, who can do ruthless as well as any character actor, so we have to assume that the twinkly characterisation he delivers instead was specifically requested) who does what he does with the greatest of reluctance. Likewise, Hallworth (David Thewlis) comes across as a cheeky chappie who gratuitously embellishes Crowhurst’s claims because, hey folks, that’s what fast-talking 1960s newspaper were like, innit? Thewlis had already turned in a far more nuanced portrayal of a journalist in ‘The Fifth Estate’ so there’s no reason to doubt that, had Burns written Hallworth as such and Marsh requested it, Thewlis would have embodied the character and projected his motives in suitably eviscerating style.

Similarly, Crowhurst’s descent into madness is skirted around rather than providing the dramatic raw red meat of the film’s final act. Neither Marsh nor Burns seem to be up to the task of depicting their protagonist’s fragmenting mental state. A visual attempt to render Crowhurst’s disorientation against a seascape that renders him insignificant isn’t well enough thought-out to be impactful, and a sequence with a non-functional radio-telephone, which seems to have been shoehorned in purely to make mention of Crowhurst’s “cosmic being theory” (but without actually explicating it), is so predictable in its visual punchline to be crass.

Put simply, ‘The Mercy’ doesn’t go deep or dark enough. Its last half hour needs to be the kind of claustrophobic and immersive headfuck that Nic Roeg, Donald Cammell, David Lynch or Alejandro Jodorowsky would have rubbed their hands together and dived right into. But I guess that headfuck-inability is what you get when you engage the director of ‘The Theory of Everything’ instead of a visionary auteur.

Mercifully (bad pun: no apologies), the film does get some things right. It gives Firth one of the best roles he’s had and – despite being at least 15 years too old to play Crowhurst – he rises above the limitations of the script and direction. As does Rachel Weisz as Clare Crowhurst, whose final act j’accuse against the press is infinitely more powerful for the reserve and restraint she forces on herself as she delivers it. There are also a cluster of scenes which simply document Crowhurst, alone at sea, coming painfully to terms with how ill-prepared he is, how unsuited to purpose the Electron is, and how miserably lonely the undertaking. I often complain that contemporary films would benefit from having their running times reduced by 15 or 20 minutes, but in this case and extra quarter of an hour or so of Crowhurst battling to keep his trimaran afloat, battling his own lack of expertise and battling the crippling external forces by which he is unable to either turn back or go on, would have improved ‘The Mercy’ no end. That, and the balls to look right into the abyss the way Crowhurst must have done during those terrible final days.

Friday, March 02, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: Deep Water


Donald Crowhurst set sail in the Teignmouth Electron in late 1968. By 1970 there had been a book that is still in print and a BBC documentary. From hereon in, there would be some form of representation as regards Crowhurst’s Golden Globe dichotomy – be it a documentary account or a fictive ruminations – across each of the six decades that separate the original Sunday Times sponsored race from the two most recent biopics: James Marsh’s ‘The Mercy’ and Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’.

But it wasn’t till 2006 – nearly forty years afterwards – that film-makers Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell came as close as anyone has thus far to making the definitive film on Donald Crowhurst and the Golden Globe race. ‘Deep Water’ is a clear-sighted and narratively lucid distillation of all the key elements. It establishes Crowhurst’s background and throws into sharp relief how lacking he was in seafaring experience compared to the other entrants. It demonstrates a psychologically acute yet sympathetic understanding of his personality – by turns ebullient, confident, persuasive, driven and, underlying all of it, self-delusional in the way that those beset by failure (or by the nagging conviction that they have not achieved all of which they are capable) can delude themselves that success or fame or whatever their motivator is, is just round the corner – and it correctly identifies him as a tragic victim rather than a villain or, worse, simply a cheat.

As an example of feature-length documentary filmmaking, it gets everything right. The balance of ‘talking heads’, voiceover and archive footage is spot on, and the transitions organic and effective. Tilda Swinton’s narration is perfectly pitched, her diction precise, and there is no slipping into melodrama. Osmond and Rothwell plot out the timeline, the course by which the circumnavigation was effected (if only by one contestant and sort-of-and-then-some by another), and the stages of the voyage as applicable to the various entrants.

Better still, it doesn’t just focus on Crowhurst, but tells his story through the greater context of the race itself. Through the yachtman’s own interview contributions, ‘Deep Water’ celebrates Robin Knox-Johnston’s success (he comes across as immensely likeable) and his generosity – he donated his winnings to the financially beleaguered Clare Crowhurst and her children. The filmmakers also evince a fascination with Bernard Moitessier, a man who had already undertaken – and published books about – various nautical adventures. The calm, steady professionalism of Knox-Johnston and the round-the-world-yacht-trip-as-zen-experience of Moitessier are the counterpoints by which Crowhurst’s story can be told that much more empathetically.

(It’s understandable that other contestants get short shrift – ‘Deep Water’ is essentially telling one story, not nine, and Knox-Johnston and Moitessier occupy a place in its narrative for specific reasons – but it’s to be regretted that, say, Bill King’s near-death experience when his boat capsized or Nigel Tetley’s dramatic eleventh hour disaster don’t merit more screen time.)

One gets the impression that Moitessier – represented by readings from his books and some splendidly philosophical interview footage with his wife Françoise – would have been the focus of ‘Deep Water’ had Crowhurst’s bizarre, enigmatic and wholly tragic story not stolen everyone’s thunder by exerting its a grip on the popular imagination that shows no signs of loosening. Moitessier, in a boat constructed from boilerplate that he named Joshua (after Joshua Slocum, author of the seminal ‘Sailing Alone Around the World’), was odds-on to win both the Golden Globe and the prize for fastest time. Had he completed the circumnavigation according to the rules of the race (and there is nothing to suggest he wouldn’t have pulled off this double whammy), Knox-Johnston would have been a footnote in yachting lore and it is possible that even Crowhurst’s infamy would have been overshadowed.

But Moistessier was a very different individual to the others. While Knox-Johnston, King, Tetley and Chay Blyth certainly benefited from the disciplined mindset of naval service and an intimacy with hardship and physical endurance, it is clear from even the most cursory background reading on the Golden Globe and one or two filmed documentaries that they were still plagued by loneliness and heartsore at being separate from their families. Moitessier, however, was liberated by these things. At one point in his voyage, with Joshua performing well but Moitessier convinced it could go faster – could veritably fly across the oceans – he jettisoned everything that he felt was superfluous – and it’s not hard to look beyond the act as a coaxing from the vessel of more speed and see it as almost purely philosophical.

Bernard Moitessier found, in the element forces of the sea and the absolutely absence of (a) his fellow men and (b) everything that wasn’t utterly necessary, a state that most zen masters would weep at never having quite achieved. And having found this state of being, Moistessier knew that he couldn’t coast into the harbour he’d set sail from to the glare of a thousand flashbulbs, the rifle-like barrels of camera lenses, the endless intrusive questions from the press, the mobbings, the publicity, the screaming hordes. So he dropped out of the race in the most spectacular and iconic way imaginable: he omitted to cross the finish line and sailed round the world all over again.

To reiterate: Knox-Johnston’s typically British victory (a literal case of slow and steady wins the race) makes for a wonderful comparison with Moitessier’s insouciance of throwing the race by coming within a whisker of winning it – think Smith in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ only in a yacht and without even the ulterior motive of wanting to cock a snook at the governor – but ultimately ‘Deep Water’ has Donald Crowhurst as its protagonist, and fascinating as its digressions are, everything ultimately comes back to his fateful decision, the role of chance in robbing him of the tail-end-Charlie placement that might just have allowed his gamble to pay off, and the terrible effect on his mental health.

‘Deep Water’ doesn’t call it in terms of whether his disappearance was a purposeful act of suicide or as a result of being swept overboard while the balance of his mind was disturbed. Quotes from his final log book entries – a sort of de-manufacture and reconstruction of elements of Einstein’s ‘Relativity, the Special and General Theory’ (Crowhurst had taken the tome with him for, ahem, light reading) – heavily suggest the latter, but ultimately no-one will ever know, and kudos to Osmond and Rothwell for discharging their responsibilities as documentarists and refusing to fall into the trap of speculation.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: The Two Voyages of Donald Crowhurst


To the best of my knowledge, the first documentary about the Golden Globe debacle was Colin Thomas’s ‘Donald Crowhurst – Sponsored for Heroism’ which aired on British TV in 1970 and is described in this excellent New Statesman article as “dour, scathing”. Having been unable to track down a copy or find it online, I found myself turning instead to ‘The Two Voyages of Donald Crowhurst’, an Arena documentary from 1994.

It’s a curious piece of work, this. The approach to the material is clinical to the point of detachment, with a voiceover delivered in the kind of vaguely condescending cut-glass English accent that suggests it was made the Fifties rather than the Nineties. With a running time just short of half an hour, it doesn’t allow itself the necessary breathing space to consider the subject matter in the depth it requires.

Particularly galling is the lack of attention paid to the other entrants in the race, and the whistlestop pace the documentary assumes in charting Crowhurst’s premeditated decision to post fictional updates of his journey, to the point at which madness overcomes him and he struggles with cosmic considerations of time, the universe and religion. ‘Two Voyages’ fails to communicate the sheer amount of time he spent in his own company, or to plumb the psychological fall-out of a man having to live with the impossible decision he made – a man alone, struggling to keep afloat an ill-prepared vessel, missing his family, terrified at the thought of financial ruination and reputational humiliation – for so long without being able to share the burden or make confession.

This aspect is especially frustrating since the documentary makes good use of Crowhurst’s own footage of the voyage. When he set out, the BBC gave him some sponsorship money, a cine-camera and a tape recorder, the intent being that he would keep an audio-visual log correlative to the written one and return with material that could be shaped into a documentary. The BBC probably had an entirely different conception of the documentary at that point in time!

‘Two Voyages’ is also effective in establishing the inherent contradictions between Crowhurst’s bright and breezy tape recordings and cine-cam footage, and the mental turmoil he was experiencing even as he continued to play the part that was expected of him. Had the documentary taken this schism as its starting point and really squared up to Crowhurst’s mental breakdown, it might have emerged as the definitive entry in the Crowhurst cycle. As it is, it’s the first piece of work that gives us Donald Crowhurst as a regular guy – right down to some audio of him blowing a melancholy tune on the mouth organ – with whom it’s all too easy to sympathise. But it only establishes that one aspect of Crowhurst, and does not (or cannot) get a fix on the Donald Crowhurst of those last weeks.

For a documentary that plays up duality in its very title, its inability to reconcile Crowhurst’s (perhaps self-created) public persona with the person he became as time wore on and his options ran out is bitterly ironic.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

CROWHURST SEASON: Horse Latitudes


‘Horse Latitudes’ is a TV movie made in 1975 with a running time of 41 minutes. For all its brevity, it takes a long hard run at including as many of the salient points of the Donald Crowhurst story as it possible: Crowhurst as amateur sailor, his boat as unready/untested, the mid-voyage dilemma, the invented log, Crowhurst’s psychological depletion, the concept of a cosmic being, the discovery of the unmanned vessel.

The weird thing about the film is that it does all of these things while almost wilfully fictionalising Crowhurst. The character presented to us by writer-director Peter Rowe is called Philip Stockton, he’s an expatriate Canadian living in England, he’s an entitled yacht club bore (albeit a more proficient sailor than the real Crowhurst), and he cooks up a scam to kill time in the calms of the South Atlantic (the horse latitudes of the title) then rejoin the race on the return leg before he’s even set sail.

Stockton is so evidently Donald Crowhurst in terms of the narrative context – ‘Horse Latitudes’ aired six years after Crowhurst’s unmanned Teignmouth Electron was found, and five after the publication of Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s much-lauded book on the subject, so the story would still have been very familiar to audience – and yet is completely unlike him in virtually every way the script could conjure.

For this reason – and also for the inclusion of a genuine weird animated sequence – ‘Horse Latitudes’ is an odd film to watch. There’s probably more to enjoy in it if one is unfamiliar with the story. Having seen ‘The Mercy’ on the big screen and ‘Deep Water’ on the small within the same 24-hour period in which I approached ‘Horse Latitudes’, I struggled with the latter’s fictionalisations. Why make him Canadian, apart from the fact that Peter Rowe is Canadian, as is Gordon Pinsent, the actor who plays Stockton? Why suggest that the deception was premeditated when the mid-voyage desperation that drove Crowhurst to his fateful decision is far more dramatic?

Both decisions weaken the film. Most subsequent approaches to the story – be they feature films or documentary works – address, to a greater or lesser degree, the very fact of Crowhurst’s Englishness. Not so much from a class perspective (the working class don’t, as Toad of Toad Hall would have put it, “mess about in boats”), but more a matter of Crowhurst fulfilling a national archetype: the underdog, the have-a-go hero, the armchair adventurer who decided to quit his armchair and live the adventure. Having Stockton as an ex-pat completely scotches these considerations; to the point, in fact, where Rowe struggles to identify Stockton’s motivation in joining the race. This may account for what seems like directorial impatience on Rowe’s part to get Stockton out to sea and have things start to go wrong for him. While ‘Horse Latitudes’ focuses on Stockton alone on the boat, Rowe is confident in his material. The land-locked scenes, however, are shoddy.

The idea of premeditation – that Stockton is nothing but a conman from the outset – does the most damage to the film. There is no sense of Stockton as anything more than a big-headed twat, a characterisation that effectively waves goodbye to the audience’s sympathy. It’s only the taut running time and Pinsent’s commanding performance that mitigate against utter loss of interest in the proceedings. Rowe’s implication that the falsified journey had always been Stockton’s back-up plan not only leeches tension at a crucial stage in the journey, but seems curiously un-sync’d, narratively and emotionally, with Stockton’s subsequent mental breakdown.

There are two ways to go as regards Crowhurst’s disappearance: accident or suicide. And while psychological derangement is a fit for both scenarios, the suicide angle plays more effectively in a dramatic context if it’s done with some degree of rationality: fear of being unmasked and bringing shame on his family; guilt that his fictitious achievements have spurred on a competitor to risk-taking and the loss of their vessel. Going mad and taking one’s life is very theatrical. Glumly and understatedly doing oneself in for lack of other options is very English. For all the romanticism and yearning for adventure and the lure of foreign climbs, there’s something about the English mindset that is almost claustrophobically narrow minded and more than half in love with failure. And for a country whose historical imperialism once saw it ruling half the globe, the island race mentality of foreignness as something that is bloody awful is deeply – psychologically – ingrained.

‘Horse Latitudes’ wants to have the madness in all its animated glory – I’m being sarcastic here: aesthetically, it makes your average Loony Tunes cartoon look like da Vinci – as well as the calm, almost pragmatic act of suicide. And it tries to reconcile these aspects without a single enquiry into the nature of Crowhurst’s national identity.

It’s one thing to fictionalise a true story – there may have been rights issues around Tomalin and Hall’s book; maybe Crowhurst’s family objected: I don’t know – but quite another for that fictionalisation to strip away the most crucial aspects of the story; the very underpinnings that define the story, that make it unique. Granted, there are some effective moments – Stockton’s meltdown at the difficulty of creating the log of a journey he hasn’t taken generates a real sense of the deception closing in on him – and Pinsent is never less than compelling. A more sympathetic script, an account of Stockton as a personality closer to Crowhurst, and Pinsent would have been so much better served. He’s the best thing about ‘Horse Latitudes’ and my cautious recommendation is entirely based on how well he sells some very difficult scenes in the last third. But – sweet lawd! – his director gave him a poisoned chalice.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind


A couple of days ago I took myself off to see ‘The Mercy’. I didn’t know much about the film or the true story it was based on, but I hadn’t been making use of my Cineworld unlimited card due to a recent spell of illness and I figured that anything starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz couldn’t be all bad.

‘The Mercy’ is a solid, well-crafted piece of film-making that benefits from Firth’s most engaged performance in probably a decade. It’s beautifully shot and the score by the late Jóhann Jóhannson is icily effective. But I came away thinking that it had shied away from the darker aspects of its subject. Almost as if director James Marsh had wanted to preserve an enigma, rather than meeting that enigma head-on and trying to get inside his protagonist’s head.

Nonetheless, the film managed to loop a hook into my mind. I drove home, poured a drink and spent an hour on the internet. I’d only vaguely known of Donald Crowhurst and the Golden Globe Race; I had no idea it was a subject that filmmakers had grappled with for over forty years. I noted that Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall’s book ‘The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst’ had been reissued, and resolved to purchase a copy after payday. I made a list of the various films – biopics, documentaries, fictionalised treatments – based on the story. I found Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell’s 2006 feature-length documentary ‘Deep Water’ online and watched it. I turned it at way past midnight that evening (with work the next day) and dreamed of a waterlogged trimaran and the terrible loneliness of months spent at sea alone.

Crowhurst and the terrible outcome of his adventure was all I could think of next day at work. That evening, I found ‘Horse Latitudes’ online: an award-winning TV movie from 1975 that changed the principles’ names and took certain liberties in its presentation of Crowhurst, but remains an intriguing starting-point in terms of trying to distil Crowhurst’s bizarre story into a cinematic format.

Currently, I’m trying to track down several other movies and TV productions, and waiting for Simon Rumley’s ‘Crowhurst’ to get its theatrical release. Having ingested three Crowhurst features in 24 hours, the one thing I know for sure is that something about his story has gripped me, has made me want to drill down into it and look at all the angles. So, depending on how much material I can get my hands on, I’m declaring a Crowhurst season on The Agitation of the Mind – I’ll review everything I can get my hands on over the next couple of weeks.

Given that everything I’ll be writing about, no matter how different the aesthetic approach or the filmmakers’ agenda, will of necessity overlap in very specific respects, this article is perhaps the ideal time to set down the basic facts of the story so that I don’t have to rehash them ad nauseum.


In 1968, weekend sailor and inventor of navigational aids Donald Crowhurst threw his hat into the ring when the Sunday Times, keen to exploit Sir Francis Chichester’s recent round-the-world solo yachting triumph, threw out a challenge. Chichester had made one stop for major overhauls. The Sunday Times offered a hefty cash prize for anyone navigating the globe, alone, without stopping. There were in fact two prizes: one for the first sailor to complete the voyage, and one for the fastest. The start date deadline was 31 October – any later and certain stretches of the ocean might prove unnavigable.

The other competitors – including merchant navy veteran Robin Knox-Johnson; author, philosopher and adventurer Bernard Moitessier; and former submarine commander Bill King – were far more experienced than Crowhurst. Nonetheless, Crowhurst secured sponsorship from a local businessman, Stanley Best, and had a trimaran, the Teignmouth Electron, built to his own specifications. Crowhurst intended the vessel to be state-of-the-art and kitted out with a phalanx of his own safety and navigation devices; his intention was to market these gizmos on his return, benefiting from the publicity generated by the race.

To drum up said publicity, he hired crime reporter Rodney Hallworth as his press agent. It’s hard not to see Best and Hallworth as the villains of the piece. Though a millionaire, Best’s sponsorship of Crowhurst came with a caveat: that if Crowhurst dropped out or failed to complete the race, he would be legally obliged to buy back the trimaran from Best. With his house already remortgaged and his finances shoddy to begin with, Crowhurst had essentially staked everything on the Golden Globe. Hallworth went to town on the hyperbole in his, ahem, reports (embellishments might be a better word), creating a public expectation that Crowhurst would have been hard pressed to deliver on even if he were a more accomplished sailor and his boat actually ready at the point of departure.

The seeds of tragedy had been sown before he even departed English shores. With the 31st October looming and incredible pressure on him to set sail, it was clear that the Teignmouth Electron wasn’t ready. His self-designed safety equipment was installed but not functional; he kidded himself that he’d get them working whilst at sea. An ingenuous buoyancy device, intended to counter the fact that trimarans are more susceptible to capsizing than mono-hulled vessels, may as well have remained on the drawing board for all its functional capabilities.

After a false start, Crowhurst set sail on the last possible date. Progress was slow. Myriad problems with the Teignmouth Electron manifested. The hulls were prone to flooding and Crowhurst had to bail by hand. It was bad enough in relatively clement seas, but once he was round the Cape of Good Hope and into the “roaring forties” (a perilous stretch of ocean between the fortieth and fiftieth parallels) the ship would likely be swamped. Crowhurst gave himself 50/50 odds of actually surviving the trip.

Alone, ill-prepared, nowhere near experienced enough as a yachtsman, Crowhurst found himself in a galling dilemma: press on and risk both the ship and his own life, or turn back and face fiscal ruination and public humiliation as a failure. His solution was a huge gamble, even in pre-GPS 1968: he created a second log book in which he mapped out an entirely fictitious journey. He cabled progress updates to Hallworth claiming the doldrums were over and the Teignmouth Electron was achieving the kind of speeds of which he’d always insisted she were capable. He knew that his phoney log wouldn’t stand up to tooth-comb scrutiny, so he intended to rejoin the race in last place and play the plucky underdog card. He’d be forfeiting the prize money for the fastest circumnavigation, but he’d be free of his obligations to Best and he could still milk the publicity to the benefit of his business.


Only he’d reckoned without how hard a solo non-stop round-the-world yacht trip is, even for experience sailors. Robin Knox-Johnson, in a display of good-natured championship, was the first to complete the journey, but he’d taken his time in doing so. The £5000 prize for the fastest entrant (that’s about £100,000 adjusted for inflation) was still up for grabs. Except fewer and fewer contestants remained to grab it. Most dropped out, none more dramatically than Moitessier, who had channelled the solitude of the voyage into a philosophical sense of self-awareness. Knowing the he could never face the crowds and cameras and intrusions into his life and experience, Moitessier didn’t so much drop out of the race as simply ignore the finish line and sail round the world for a second time.

As Crowhurst communicated his false bearings, mainly telegraphically as he knew his radio signals wouldn’t bear out his claimed positions, Hallworth spun them into a narrative of underdog heroism, derring-do and record-breaking speeds. Naturally, all of this got back to the other competitors. Nigel Tetley was looking set to follow Knox-Johnson into second place. Concerned that Crowhurst was gaining on him, he pushed his boat too hard in ill weather and only just avoided going down with it.

Crowhurst’s deception was entirely dependent on coming last. Nobody, he was convinced, would give his log more than a cursory glance. But the news of Tetley’s disaster left him in an impossible position: Knox-Johnson had finished, and he, Donald Crowhurst, was the only other yachtsman still in the race. The £5000 prize and all the attendant publicity – in other words, the almost inevitable uncovering of the deception – were all but guaranteed.

At this point, Crowhurst quit sailing the Teignmouth Electron and just drifted through the kelp-clogged expanse of the Sargasso Sea. He opened a third log and wrote a bizarre 25,000 word essay on cosmic beings, godlike perspectives and the nature of time. The final paragraphs are indicative of a man who has lost his mind.

Days later, the trimaran was spotted by a passing container ship. It was deserted. The log books fell into Hallworth’s hands and the story they told was front page news. Crowhurst’s body was never found. Knox-Johnson donated his prize money to Clare Crowhurst and her children.

It’s the abject claustrophobia of the story that’s got under my skin. The idea of someone in a confined space (made more confined by the vastness of the ocean around him) making a decision born of the lack of other viable options and then finding himself unable to reverse or untangle that decision never mind the consequences. Then there’s the enigma: did Crowhurst deliberately commit suicide, or did he slip from the vessel while the balance of mind was awry. Are the contents of his final log a spiritual epiphany or demented ravings?

The subject is rife for conjecture; a jumping off point for the creative imagination. In addition to at least two published books on the subject and the (pardon the pun) raft of features, be they big screen, small screen, fictionalised or documentary, there have been theatrical productions, art installations, poems, even an opera. Donald Crowhurst set out to become a hero; circumstances forced him to become a fraudster; the enigmatic pull of his story, and its lure for artists, finally made him a legend.